Re: What Would You Do

: Kayla. Please don’t be neurotic. That was just a bashful reply. We are what I’ve always wanted.

: Hey! — I saw this thing and thought of you. On a bus to Paducah, KY…

: Ow, my heart.

: That was lovely and iconic.

: There might be a part of me that loves you.

: Emotions are strange, huh? I do miss talking to you. Though, I don’t understand how I could be “everything.”

: This message was created automatically by mail delivery software. A message that you sent could not be delivered to one or more of its recipients. This is a permanent error. The following address(es) failed:

: k don’t know what’s local but most towns have several general practitioners to choose from and there are clinics that don’t require any appointment for care asap so no excuse better take advantage of being insurance coverage wonts always be that fortunate use it before you lose love ya dad is home if you just need to talk

: You sound quite lucid. Refer to these the next time you don’t know what to do.

: Oy, I’m sorry, gurl. I know the feeling.

: Put on some Beyonce! Some Miley! Some TSwift!

: Life takes many twists and turns and never quite ends up how we imagined it would as little girls. You have been fortunate in your endeavors, but surely it is easy to understand missing what you left behind. The unknown is what adventure lies ahead. Never forget you are a special lady. Take care.

: What a big change! That must be really difficult.

: Wow. Damn, Kayla. Well good for you. Sounds like you’re pretty grounded. I bet that was a difficult decision.

: Awesome – good for you – I’m glad you’re keeping your options open. I wasn’t completely sold on that guy.
I had a crazy stalker for 2 months! That’s as close to a relationship as I’ve gotten in far too long…

: Here to talk whenever you’re ready. Miss hearing from you.

: Last night it really hit me how much the emotional distance between us changes things. I’m not connecting with people here that I want to, and I feel like there’s a gap in my social life that may take a long time to fill.

: Dear, sweet Kayla, thank you for thinking of me. I’ve secretly been reading your poems for months now. You are exceptional. I am juggling a bundle of things but promise to read this, and write back ASAP. xoxo.

: Call me tomorrow afternoon…I didn’t even see the missed call. I think I had the phone turned off for a bit. Hey, I got an iPad!!!!!!!!!!

: I appreciate your kindly sentiments, Kayla. I plan on doing just as you’ve written, hunkering down and allowing my head to settle some.

: I have no doubt you’ll learn a lot about yourself. I know I haven’t seen my family in a year, maybe more now that I’m moving again. Just keep yourself busy. Do the things that bring you joy. Peace will come.

I’ll Be Home for Christmas

I swept the stuff and the shit and the sayings [that were given but not asked for] under the mat.

I got stuck at the mirror all morning, from the first second after my second helping of breakfast was consumed, through noon, when it stopped being cute to have an imaginary friend, and became something not unlike schizophrenia.

She wants you to put on a nice outfit, do your hair up right, take out the trash.

There’s a good side of me that recognizes the significance in having a room and body to live in, fortunately. And so, I keep my corners clear before settling here. At the only cafe counter in town where there are coasters and carousels of condiments.  I swept the stuff and the shit and the sayings — that were given but not asked for— under the mat. And I dressed up. If, any minute now, a stranger should sidle up beside me, the barista might rightly testify that I was asking for it. Imagine a young adult woman alone, but for her leather notebook and inky pen, on Christmas Eve, and try not to assume that she’d be receptive to spitting— on semantics or semiotics.

She wants you to make a public display of affection, a show of your agency, and strip off all the layers that you did not lay yourself.

Once, a dog ate my history, and so I had to rewrite it…

My self and I are neither “hanging out” nor halfway to the altar. This is our first official date, the one that we will use to set expectations, to measure the depth and scale of commitment. You have been asking me to come out for two decades, but there have been OK excuses to skirt the invitation. Like, once a dog ate my history, and so I had to rewrite it; on the opening night of some subversive flick that would have changed my course forever. As for the others, I was busy. When she called just to say “It’s me!” I let the line go tu-tu-tu-tu, seeming less harsh than the truth.

She wants you to stop playing, cut the chords, and listen for the old bray of your heart.

I am home.

What is home if not where one goes looking for love?

Six months ago, the greatest love of my life moved to Reno, Nevada, but being reluctant to follow a woman, I did not go. Instead, I put her down as my plus-one to holiday parties in Salt Lake City, Utah; Cambridge, Massachusetts; Edmonton, Kentucky; and Charlestown, New Hampshire, knowing that she could not afford to travel. She said, “I do not have a plane, or a train, or an automobile, but there’s a bicycle on Craigslist for $40.” And so, I have met her here, for a cup of coffee, and a two-wheeled tour of the Biggest Little City in the world. What is home if not where one goes looking for love?

Crossed Trees, Dotted Skies

Out of fear of jeopardizing a nascent acquaintance, with someone who understood “small talk” as being the conversations we have on the subject of our size relative to Earth, and its size relative to the universe, I agreed — to hop through puddles, and over the tracks; to lower my defenses against soiling my new Oxford flats.

Running, we hit a wall of brambles that fell open, and swallowed us whole, when my leader uttered the magic words: this way. On the other side, a cemetery, a grove of blighted poles–uncut. “This wood is still good,” they said, “but timberers know that the humankind are superstitious of catching diseases (that do not spread) and living in haunted houses (where none but trees have bled).”

I associate this adventure, from which I am now six months removed, with the feeling of fullness — a mind full of metaphysical questions, stockings full of stinging nettles, and the potential for a future full of invitations to eat ice cream with a friend. Stepping out of my comfort zone, and into the footprints of that nomad/nymph, was the first move of many that led to the making of this hole that I am now using to scratch my toe without removing my shoes. In retrospect, it was worth it.

The Oxbow Nature Study Area, chartered for the animals, by the people, is a watering hole for creatures who enjoy watching and being watched, while pretending to be thoroughly invested in some thing or another — often taking field notes in their Moleskine notebooks or surveying the range of edibles within walking distance.

It is public land, one of the few remaining places where we can play for free. I know a guy — I’ve lived here long enough to know a guy — who practices flute under those minimizing cottonwood spires, making music for an audience of his peers: the growlers, the quackers, the imagined masters, of cloud castles in the sky.

Despite being too frugal to buy toilet tissue, when it’s easy enough to swipe a roll from the diner over the hill, I ritually sacrifice $2.29 for one 10 oz. mug of coffee. I treat the cafe counter as rented studio space. Consumer etiquette tells me that I can loiter for two hours before purchasing a refill becomes obligatory.

But…there is a place for people like me, a preserve for poets who’d rather perch on the periphery of society than participate in basic exchanges of cash for caffeine. A place closer to home. A place that my memory recalls as the most romantic / Romantic setting in all of Reno, Nevada. Oxbow is convenient and cost-effective and cast in natural light, but I do not go there.

Now, sitting on the dock that leans out against muddy waters, into the marsh, a tributary of the Truckee River, I listen for the question that belongs to this place, on that day, when they asked it. Then, my answer was a snake in the reeds, meandering, a thing that made us wonder which end to be afraid of.
“What is home, Kayla?” A “w” question, but not the one I expected.
I said, “Home is a social convention — more dated than dating — four
walls make a box, two adults and two children in a box make four people.”

There’s some pleasure in being (or performing as) the type of person to intellectualize a concept that others know intuitively for fact, i.e., red means stops, green means living, but more in having a queue of single words answers to fill all the blank, uninterested faces at any given gathering of acquaintances.
Now, I am wanting to say “here” or “you” or some other small but mighty thing. I am wanting to express my truth, which is love, which is gratitude, which is healing, but they are not asking. Out of respect, let no mean no; let silence mean no; let me listen. Let an other have their turn in the sun, their pirouette on the big, flattop of a rotted-out stump.

This time, let me ask the questions.

Love Letter Manifesta

Starting now, I choose to adapt to a higher standard of living.

Up to this point, my experience as a creature on this fine planet has been a whirligig of emotions, peace-becoming-turmoil-becoming peace-becoming-turmoil. Erratic is a good word, one which I tangentially define as “of or relating to New England weather.” I have never seen a year without four distinct seasons, so the choice of whether or not to adapt–to new colors and patterns on the ground, and in the sky, and the new dispositions that accompany them–is not one that I have practiced making. The person who I am today has been built upon an accumulation of abrupt transitions, she has witnessed (both in herself and others) so many changes in heart that the only outcome that feels safe to assume is impermanence. Last night, you saw me swinging, somewhere behind the eyes. In the weeks following my arrival, the arc of the pendulum within me has shortened, enabling me to feel happiness unchecked; the present moment is objectively good.

I do not need love to stand in for hunger, health or shelter…

Starting now, I choose to adapt to a higher standard of living. I give myself permission to seek out friendships and companionships with other walls, standing strong and tall, who love and respect themselves as much (or more than) me. I give myself permission to ask for what I want. I want someone to share beautiful things with, who challenges my definition of what it means to be extraordinary–or better–someone who refuses to differentiate between the mundane and the extraordinary, who finds purpose in his or her life not through acknowledged status and accomplishments but through anonymous acts of kindness and art making, guerrilla gardening, an authentic drive to die having enriched the planet and the lives of those plants and animals who inhabit it. What I want is a rare breed of person and a nuanced connection that requires more time to marinate than my previous self would have been comfortable with. Fortunately, the present moment is objectively good.

I resolve to show respect to those people and items that nourish my body.

I do not need love to stand in for hunger, health or shelter, for friends, family or therapy, these “basic needs” are, at long last, met, and I find myself in the position to want again. The easy, expectationless process that we have chosen to unravel each other is something that I have wanted for a long time, yet I’m not sure if it was a conscious decision for me. By some intuition, I continue to treat our interactions as little bites of a pie, the size and flavor of which remain to be determined, chewing each at least fifty times. Though both food and company are easily accessible to me, I resolve to show respect to those people and items that nourish my body, my soul, my heart.  Our day together was an anomaly in the scheme of my year and week and life, inviting me to experience the full range of good emotions–attraction seasoned with camaraderie and shameless festering–without imminent pain on the horizon. My intention: one good day at a time.

These past months of bashful salutations and stolen eye contact have transported me to a place of cognitive dissonance. After overreaching, and not being met halfway, the natural response should be to feel alienated from you–but, instead, I have noticed our connection deepen in density and thickness; new pathways have emerged to bridge the silence, while the old have been tread into permanence. All beings emit noise, above and beyond the sound of the breath, it’s that buzz-and-whir of the reel (some call it the brain, I’m sure) turning over, and over again, in the same way; forever. I did not tune my dial in search of your frequency; on the contrary, I tried to give up guessing at your thoughts, but every space you enter swells–made grander by your modest music, a trio of flute, panpipes and the whisper-whistle of the wind through a willow tree. When you are far, the air is too quiet; close, too loud

but the third bowl of porridge was just right
I love you

The landscape of my desire is all wilderness; there are at least 5,000 acres imagined for solitude.

We are both thankful for a thrift store being open on Sunday, as our hunger for Capezio T-straps with Teletone taps (me) and a poorly rendered portrait of Cesar Chavez (you), had it been otherwise, would still lay dormant. We are both in agreement that the capacity to want a thing immediately–without history, or context, or even a middle name, should be preserved, but disagree on the question of how to use it. The landscape of my desire is all wilderness; there are at least 5,000 acres imagined for solitude, and all other primitive and unconfined forms of recreation. I do not care to scale every inch, to build trails that loop back or lunge forward. I do not care to know why it feels sexy to ride bicycles wearing jazz shoes, or if it makes good sense to love you, I just do.


  • burnt sage
  • brown bananas
  • dance sweat
  • used bookstore
  • masa harina
  • castille soap
  • brackish water
  • bruised lavender
  • the month of June
  • wet socks
  • sidewalk chalk
  • secondhand shirts
  •  supermarket pastries
  • sun-dried blacktop
  • hot coffee
  • cold crepes

Blue Collar, Khaki Pants: The Making of a Wal-Mart Man [Essay]

    My father’s father was born into the callused hands of a vegetable farmer who groomed him for a life of labor. Till the land. Sow the seed. Don’t have me tell you twice. Cuff ‘side the head. In that day and age, wives were bred to capacity; four daughters plus five sons equaled eighteen hands, full.

    My father was born into tar, feathers, and chicken poop, on the cracked-corn floorboards of a coup. His weekends were oriented around the achievement of three objectives: (1) slit the throat;  (2) pluck the feathers; (3) sell sell sell. Kennett boys have always been goal-oriented and strong, but shy, as if handmade cogs for other men’s machines.

   As a young man, Brad had grander aspirations than shoveling shit, so he saved his coins for education and adventure. When his cap hit the ground, he vowed to hit the road and drive, just drive, as many miles from that piss-poor town as his leaking gas tank could stand to propel him. At nineteen, he descended the stairs with an announcement caught in his throat. Mama, I want wings. Let me go to Kitty Hawk. I’ll come back a pilot, a professional, dressed in pleated pants and soot-shined shoes, the works.

   In her solar system, motherhood was the sun; with an empty nest, Patty felt about as useful as a heart singing to an empty chest. But, with four celestial bodies, could she not spare just one? She could and, ten years later, brother and sisters would be scattered, like marbles across an ever-expanding dugout. As mothers know, and youngest sons do not, the baby is precious and rare. Patty refused to barter with her cat’s eye, so Brad stayed home, and made a baby of his own.

   A single father, with a baby on his hip, will take the first job he can get. In 1992, when the machine shop closed its doors for good, Wal-Mart was our godsend. They offered eight dollars an hour, plus benefits, and a whopping 25% discount on edible merchandise. Looking back, I imagine they must have known that we were starving; the frugal fisherman baits with his baseline when the fish have no choice but to bite. In 1992, when formula became the new liquid gold, Wal-Mart was our godsend.

   Like a crop circle, the store seemed to materialize overnight, in a lot that had been empty for ten years, matted over with clover and crab grass. No one had seen them coming, especially to a town so modest but, when the higher-ups issued a press release, they thanked the community for its warm welcome, and insisted that the pleasure was theirs. A wise man once told me: “Never throw your filet into a hot pan without butter.” Looking back, I imagine they must have known that one too.

   The grand opening was an affair of local acclaim, grander even than our town-wide yard sale. When I close my eyes, a void lies where the miniature horse is supposed to be but, at least, we captured it in a snapshot. Upstairs, in the tackle box where photos go, my father and I are posing with four men in fresh-pressed suits. When my father tells this story, he uses m words: meet-and-greet, mingling, mustaches, mind-wash. From the periphery, it appeared a carnival, with popcorn and bouquets of smiling balloons, but that was before he learned how much Wal-Mart spends, and can afford to spend, on maintenance control.

   In his first year of employment, Store #1975 hosted a half-dozen public relations events. As a natural introvert, playing grill master at sidewalk barbeques did not lie within his comfort zone. Yet, Brad was a good ol’ boy and everyone knew it. The customers loved his crooked smile and salty sarcasm but, most of all, loved that he was someone they could imagine grabbing a beer with. He accumulated more sunny ‘hellos’ than could be counted, drafted a mental list of his favorites and, slowly, human interaction became comfortable, even fun. The big boss took notice. In April 1993, one year following Sam Walton’s death in Little Rock, Arkansas, Brad was granted reign over Lawn & Garden. Not bad for the son of a butcher.

   The shark lures the minnow into its mouth by pretending to be a cave, a home. In 1998, Wal-Mart introduced The Neighborhood Market, a small-concept model designed to emulate the experience of shopping in a mom-and-pop grocery store. Ten years later, the corporation began aggressively expanding this division, pitching their growth as an altruistic attempt to increase food access in urban communities. The most rewarding element of working for Wal-Mart, Brad tells me, are the opportunities for employees to “give back.” In the time I have known him, he has shown sympathy for few social movements, but food justice hits where his heart lies. At home. My father was born into a home with cobwebs in the cupboards, raised on peanut butter n’ mustard sandwiches and, sometimes, on nothing. Throughout my childhood, our holidays were spent volunteering at local food banks and soup kitchens, stuffing cavities at the Annual Thanksgiving Turkey Drive and, of course, serving steaks fresh off the sidewalk. Those were sentimental days for the both of us, though he never said as much, his restrained tears told me so. As a boy, the companionship of neighborhood kids helped Brad feel full. As a boy, he promised they would “get out” together but, with only four major employers, steady work does not not come easily. So, as a man, Brad lent his hands, choking up every time he filled the empty mouth of a friend.

   A wise man, my father once told me: “Never bite the hand that feeds you.” Sometimes, when he’s feeling cynical, Brad has to remind himself that Wal-Mart does “good work.” They have become the nation’s largest grocer, stocking more pantries than Stop N Shop, Hannaford or Food Lion. He has to remind himself that they stock his pantry too. There aren’t enough mom-and-pops to feed America and, even if there were, Wal-Mart would drive them into the ground. He has to forget to remember this. When I fled the nest, he accepted the salary position that they had been grooming him for and, as he ascended the ladder, a broader picture came into view. “At the top,” he says, “they do not care about people, they care about demographics, market trends and, most of all, money.” When my father tells this story, he drops “corporate greed” by the dozen. From the inside, he still sees a carnival, with popcorn and smiling balloons but, differently somehow. This year, he will work sixty hour weeks during the holiday season, and make penance at the turkey drive.

Growing Pains [10-Minute Play]


by Kayla Kennett


JOSEPH, a middle-aged man of rural upbringing

ALLEGRA, his daughter, early twenties


A garden at peak harvest

[Lights up on JOSEPH and ALLEGRA, each seated on individual benches, facing the audience. JOSEPH wears a plaid flannel, blue denim jeans, and work boots. ALLEGRA wears a denim jacket, in a matching shade, over a simple A-line dress. They speak past each other, unaware that they occupy the same space; no eye contact.]

JOSEPH:  (arms folded into a cradle, singing)


    The other night dear

     as I lay sleeping

     I dreamed I held you

    in my arms

                  (rocks arms)

    But when I awoke, dear,

    I was mistaken,

    so I bowed my head and I cried.


ALLEGRA: (stoic, staring ahead) I was only eight years old when he ascended the stairs to my bedroom, brushed the heartbreak from my eyes, and cooed “Sorry, love, this night will be our last.”


JOSEPH: (confident, charismatic) I didn’t give a fuck about Y2K. What could be more terrifying than a daughter’s eighth birthday?


ALLEGRA: When it came time to blow the candles, I stole three wishes; two for roller skates,

(pauses to smile) and one for more good-night kisses. But, he said “No, they are too dangerous.”


JOSEPH: That year, she hosted her first sleepover party (laughs, and becomes more animated)

. . . and I thought one bottle of nail polish was something to choke on. Six little hens, giggling and carrying on, playing round after round after round of “truth-or-dare.” For the first time, it hit me – I’m growing a woman. (nodding, directing his eyes offstage) And I thought, Joe, what the hell have you gotten yourself into?


ALLEGRA: (in a younger voice) Daddy, when I grow up, I want to be just like you – but taller! (returns to natural pitch) After sprouting six inches in three years, I had no reason to believe that I was made of anything but magic beans.


JOSEPH: First, she grew up (ALLEGRA stands) and, then, she grew out (ALLEGRA puts hands on hips) but I saved “the talk” for the professionals.


ALLEGRA: (dropping hands, planting feet) He planted an acorn in the center of his garden, right between the bell peppers and sugar-snap peas, without considering that, some day, it would become a tree (sits and crosses legs).


JOSEPH: Even if I had stopped watering her, I couldn’t have slowed that girl down; she branched out quicker than I could prune her back.


ALLEGRA: We used to drive down to Lake Warren every Saturday, armed with boxes of bait and tackle. (almost chanting) Cast-Snag-Reel. Cast-Snag-Reel. He taught me well, but I could never match his skill. (in JOSEPH’S voice, agitated) “I didn’t know we were fishing for rocks!”


      (ALLEGRA chuckles.)


JOSEPH: The Homecoming Dance fell on a Saturday night; I guess it was my mistake to assume that she had her priorities right.


ALLEGRA: My first corsage was made from carnations – not roses, or even chrysanthemums – but I loved it all the same. We were over a mile from my house before Ethan did so much as hold my hand.


JOSEPH: (sneering) That fool called me on the telephone to prove himself a man, flaunting all of these fancy words, as if he were asking for her hand! (imitating ETHAN, speech is confident but slightly stuttered) “Hello, sir, this is what’s-his-name, may I please escort Miss Allegra to the semi-formal, it’s happening one fortnight from now?” (shaking his head) To me, she could only ever be my Ally-cat.


ALLEGRA: (blushing) Ethan taught me the difference between loving a man, and being in love with a man.


JOSEPH: (choking up) She was only eight years old, when I ascended the stairs to her bedroom, wiped the heartbreak from her eyes, and bowed my head to say, “I’ll tuck you in tonight, but not tomorrow – you’re a big girl now.”


ALLEGRA: It is said that you cannot pick your family but, at least, you can pick your friends. Someday I will become a tree, but our love will never end; Daddy, I choose you for my friend.


JOSEPH: As a father, you want to give your daughter the key to the city, you want her to never want for more. Some days, I kick myself, “Why did you have to do such a damn good job . . . (trailing off)


ALLEGRA: I left him in Kentucky, but with plenty of company: twenty chickens, forty acres, and one-hundred baby blueberry bushes. For some men, it’s a second wife and, for others, it’s a shiny sports car, but not my dad. Instead, he bought the farm.


JOSEPH: She was born with a green thumb, and flowers in her hair.

(ALLEGRA chooses a flower from the arrangement beside her, and tucks it behind her ear)

                 “I guess she takes after her mother,” they said, and I just shook my head.

    (JOSEPH laughs, slaps his knee)

                   That woman couldn’t keep a cactus alive in Arizona!

ALLEGRA: (almost chanting) If I should die before I wake, I pray they lay me beneath a tree and tuck me into a bed of scruffy moss – to remind me of the first beard I knew and loved.


JOSEPH: We haven’t grown apart. We have rooted new traditions. I mail her homegrown sunflower seeds, summer squash, and sweet potatoes; it costs me forty dollars a pop, but my Ally-cat will always remember where she came from.


ALLEGRA: In 1992, when autumn first descended upon our sleepy town, Daddy put me on his shoulders and we spun around and ‘round.

                (ALLEGRA stands, spins until dizzy and, then, sits down)


JOSEPH: (singing)

  (ALLEGRA reclines on the bench, holding her head in hands)

  (JOSEPH, with apprehension, begins to stand, but remains seated)

                 You are my sunshine, my only sunshine

                 You make me happy, when skies are gray …



           You’ll never know, dear, how much I love you.

            Please, don’t take my sunshine away.

The End.

Growing Up a Daddy’s Girl [Essay]

Dad always proclaimed himself a “realist,” because it sounded more charming than “cynic;” as a parent, he sought to prepare me for life’s inevitable burdens and disappointments. During my most formative years, he never coddled me with fatherly reassurances, or let me know when I had done right; “you can do anything you set your mind to” and “I’m proud of you” were phrases foreign to his dialect. I spent my childhood pining away for his praise, but every disobedience was worth fifteen accomplishments. I began to wonder how parents earned their dictatorial status, their incontestable authority; I was “daughter,” he was “father,” but were we not both equally human?

Like all sons and daughters, my teenage years prompted an evaluation of the power dynamic in my household; “why, Dad, do you always get to be ‘right?’” He responded with an amalgamation of parental clichés, e.g., “life experience,” “hard work,” “I’ve been around longer than you,” followed by a reminder that I really ought to remember who I was talking to. It took a few years, two heartbreaks, three family tragedies, etc., for me to understand that some experiences must be lived to be known.

In Western cultures, there are few, if any, formal rites of passage which demarcate the transition from adolescence to adulthood. The eighteenth birthday, though it bestows several rights and privileges reserved for adults, is more closely associated with commencement speeches than the commencement of “grown-up” responsibilities. When I celebrated my eighteenth, nearly one month into my freshmen year of college, I felt immodestly precocious for my age. With two years of part-time cashiering under my belt, and more than 1,000 miles between my father and me, I took pride in the physical and financial independence which I was certain differentiated me from my peers, and carried myself with a smugness which said you have no idea what I’ve been through.

When I moved from Charlestown, NH, a formerly prosperous industrial village where many residents still rely on the meager earnings of factory work, to the campus of a private liberal arts college, I felt alienated by my background for the first time. Most of my peers had come from nuclear families, with two working parents, brothers, sisters, the works; I grew up in a family unit which consisted of 2.5 members on average: my father, me, and his live-in girlfriend, of one name or another, who I could just never call  “Mom.” No one seemed to know the meaning of EFC, the price of a monthly payment, or how much s/he had to earn to afford another year, but I crunched those numbers in my sleep ($9,000-$3,943=$5,057 more than our expected contribution) and walked Dad through financial aid forms over the phone. I had seen my parents’ marriage fail, watched my father lose all faith in fairness (and women), and tried and failed to convince him that Wheaton wouldn’t be the biggest financial mistake of my life.

In the late summer of 2010, our double-wide mobile home sold for $95,000; for Dad, the transaction bought three bedrooms, two baths, and forty acres in Edmonton, Kentucky; for me, autonomy. From then on, there were no things between us, no shared assets; like a divorced couple post-settlement, we parted diplomatically, each taking what was “his” or “hers,” leaving for separate places called “home.”  When I chose to attend Wheaton, a decision in direct opposition with my father’s preference, it was the first time I laid claim to my individual rights. He couldn’t hold “the roof over my head” over my head anymore; we were two individuals on divergent paths, both entitled to the same self-directing freedom and moral independence.

In the wake of my first taste of freedom, my naiveté showed itself; like a child who wants nothing more than to eat ice cream for breakfast, I couldn’t wait to begin living my life by my rules. I made the mistake of buying into the notion of free will, assuming that it was possible to remove myself from the context in which I had come of age, and make choices which were entirely self-governed. Now, two years removed, I am confronted by how inextricably bound my personal identity will always be to the lessons, advices, and moral codes relayed to me in childhood.

Last winter, in a bout of whatthehellamisupposedtodoinkentucky, I took a long, deep look at myself, and was disappointed to see a watered down version of the person who I aspired to be. Perhaps, it was New Year’s tradition which prompted my spontaneous introspection, or maybe the squawk of Fox News in our living room forced my liberal-mindedness to manifest itself but, of one thing I am certain, an irrational fear of being disinherited by my “home people” had discouraged me from becoming “too different” or “too radical.” The monikers which I identify with today are controversial and, for a while, I justified using statements which marginalized my beliefs, e.g., “I’m not a feminist, but … I am disgusted by the hypersexualization of women in the media,” “I’m not a vegetarian, but … I try to avoid eating meat.” At home, I itched for someone to bounce my ideas off of, but conversations with my father had consistently proven to be less than productive; he was exasperated by all those “too-sensitive women at work who can’t take a joke” and “starving idiots in India who worship cows instead of eating them.” In January, I left the Bluegrass State as a closet vegetarian, armed with a resolution to kick my habit of self-censorship.

Five months later, I cut off all but four inches of my hair, bought a bicycle helmet, and hitched a ride to western Massachusetts. For the next ten weeks, I would be a full-time participant in Summer of Solutions, SoS for short, an acronym which, in my mind, would come to stand for “Summer of Soul-Searching.” My friend looked over her shoulder and waved “good-bye,” leaving me all alone in the dirt driveway of Harvest Moon Farm; I felt a resurgence of familiar tears, just like the ones I used to cry when Dad would drop me off at daycare. In the kitchen, our landlord puttered away on the sink; he was in the “finishing touches” stage of renovating the apartment where I, and my two housemates, would be living for the summer. At the time, it terrified me to be alone with this strange man, on the outskirts of a town which I had never seen before. Two weeks ago, I mailed a thank you card to Eric and his wife, and was surprised by the nostalgia I felt as I addressed the envelope; I miss 216 Wisdom Way, Greenfield, MA, 01301. If only I had been able to predict the change of heart.

In high school, I never had the financial flexibility to “waste” a vacation from school with anything but full-time employment. If I hadn’t worked at Ralph’s Supermarket for $7.25/hr, a college education would not have been possible for me; my obligation to scrimp and save took precedence over the desire to have meaningful and intellectually stimulating summer experiences. When my acceptance to Wheaton included an academic scholarship, I was ecstatic, even more ecstatic when I read that, as a Balfour scholar, my award included $3,000 to fund an unpaid summer experience or internship. By the summer of my sophomore year, I had learned my father’s cynicism for myself; the system was against people like us, people whose socioeconomic status chased away opportunities; though I had been fortunate enough to “get out,” I wasn’t about to forget the struggles of the community I had left behind.

Summer of Solutions  is a youth-led community development program which strengthens participants’ abilities to address social, economic, and environmental issues. Through self-initiated projects, and with the support of leadership training, participants address the needs of local communities, and work to organize tangible improvements which will sustain themselves beyond the span of a ten-week program. In an age of austerity, today’s youth are learning that they must create their own solutions and build sustainable, just livelihoods; Summer of Solutions takes into account both local needs and local assets in its development of long-term projects.

My interest in the Pioneer Valley program stemmed from a desire to lend a hand in preserving the integrity of my homeland. Those who settle in towns like Greenfield and Turners Falls make a priority of location, trading the thriving economy of a larger city for the richness of natural beauty and resources found in the country. As the United States shifts to a more service-based economy, urban development becomes inevitable in even the most untouched of areas. Small towns do not necessarily need to modernize; they, instead, need to find a way to become relevant in the context of a changing economy. Rural America will soon face extinction, unless it is able to become self-sustaining. In reading the program description, the leaders of Pioneer Valley seemed to have initiatives in place which would make this entirely possible. I was particularly interested in perpetuating the “eat local, buy local” movement which appeared to solve two problems at once. Growing and selling food locally is healthier and more ethical for both the consumer and the planet; it reduces our dependency on corporate food, which relies on shady farming practices (genetically modified crops, use of hormones and pesticides), as well as our dependency on the fuel necessary to ship it.

Summer of Solutions was an opportunity for me to take a step back, to reconnect with the person I once was, the girl who played in brook-beds and made homes of fallen limbs. We have become a people so absorbed in passive forms of entertainment that we hardly know what to do with ourselves. I spent my summer free of distraction and, more importantly, idleness. I harnessed my creative energy, and learned tangible, practical skills; food preservation, composting, bicycle maintenance, bread making, plant identification, etc.

While a college education is certainly valuable, I am forthright in acknowledging how coddling the life of a student can be. I am proud to be able to claim a certain degree of knowledge, but after a summer of farm labor and 10 mile bike rides, I am more proud to say: “These are the things I do” as opposed to “These are the things I know.” As cliché as it may sound, I didn’t want to be the voice of change, I wanted to be the change. I didn’t want to be the “couch activist” who watches Food, Inc. and, for some reason, believes that going vegan for two weeks is enough to make a difference. Summer of Solutions was my starting point, the beginning of a lifelong endeavor to practice what I preach, the beginning of a lifelong journey toward autonomy.

Self-Domesticated [Essay]

In the throes of an autumn hurricane, rain falling in thick flannel sheets, woody branches flexing, snapping, barreling to the ground, I holed up in a 10’ x 12’ dorm room, disturbed only by an occasional flicker of the lights, the abrasive *ting* of rain drops, like small stones pelting against our window. I say our, neither “my” nor “his,” because, by that time in November, he and I had been playing house for two months, sharing four dresser drawers, three varieties of tea, two coffee mugs, and one twin-sized bed. Our days began at 7:45 am, when our alarms simultaneously chimed and our eyes met with the same sentiment: five more minutes. We had fallen into the pattern of a working couple ten years our senior, apart from nine to five, dinner and “How was your day?” at six, bedtime no later than twelve-thirty and, for the first time in my dating life, I felt “on the same page” with my partner.

In childhood and adolescence, I had learned to anticipate abandonment, as friends, family, and lovers carved out places in my heart only to relinquish them once I developed an attachment. Lacking a consistent and emotionally available caregiver disabled me from building the trust needed to sustain healthy relationships in adulthood. I craved the stability of long-term commitment, but required regular affirmation of my partners’ affections to a degree that could not be sustained. After a handful of botched romances, happy cohabitation seemed a distant fantasy, an unrealistic expectation for someone just entering her twenties, but, then, it happened.

I couldn’t find the words to express how grateful I was to have his unconditional love; boys are, after all, notoriously opposed to commitment and, as mothers always advise, when you meet one of those rare exceptions, you had better hold onto him. The overuse and commodification of I love you, a sentiment emblazoned across the chests of teddy bears, printed on chalky heart-shaped candies, left me wanting for a medium of expression that wouldn’t marginalize the sincerity of my affections. Under the premise that actions speak louder than words, I integrated daily gestures of kindness into my routine, making treats for us to indulge in during study breaks, cleaning our room while he was away for the weekend, brewing him cups of tea when he had a sore throat. I lived for the praise these acts garnered me, extra hugs and kisses, the “Mmm” as he tasted my chai-spiced apple sauce, invitations to come home and meet his parents. Over time, though, the appreciation dwindled, and I started fishing for compliments, soliloquizing on how I planned to make butternut squash soup for dinner, but he wouldn’t bite.

With two Women’s Studies courses on my schedule, I had become increasingly alert to gender inequalities, and developed a heightened awareness of my own gender strategy. From an outside perspective, I was sure we resembled the prototypical heterosexual couple, despotic male/servile female, and that terrified me. Cooking had been a love of my life before I met this man, this “love of my life,” but with a frying pan in one hand, and The Second Shift in the other, I must have looked like the model of hypocrisy; there I was, condemning the gender division of labor, while trying to win my boyfriend’s heart through his stomach. I wanted to run out of the [metaphorical] kitchen faster than I could untie my apron strings, lest I be eternally damned to the domestic sphere.

At the time, I hadn’t yet decided the role I wanted feminism to play in my life and, in terms of feminist identity development, my feet were planted firmly in Stage III, embeddedness-emanation. My resentment and anger towards a world which allows daily injustices to transpire against women was still fresh, exacerbating my trust issues with men, and leading me to overidentify men’s intent to oppress. I was not in the mindset to take responsibility for my role in creating this dynamic, instead I shifted the whole of the burden to my partner: if anything sexist is going on, it must be his fault. After all, I was a feminist goddamnit, and I would never choose to be some 1960s sitcom housewife like Samantha Stephens or June Cleaver, I wanted to be Mary Tyler Moore! But playing the blame game was (1) not ending my compulsion to reward him with cookies and clean laundry and (2) alienating me from a potential ally.

For our relationship to become truly egalitarian, I needed to change the way I approached gender issues, no longer as exclusively women’s issues. Throughout our childhood and adolescent years, he and I were both spoon-fed the dominant/submissive paradigm, and both internalized our traditional role in the heterosexual relationship as the “natural” way of relating to the opposite sex. Gender had been both of our destinies. I was in denial of my conformity, he was oblivious to his, and neither of us questioned the distribution of power in our relationship before I developed an interest in Women’s Studies. Unfortunately, that phenomenon did not go unnoticed, and my “unwarranted” attacks led him to construct a stereotypical portrait of feminism as a man-hating and antagonistic movement. When I was pressed to defend the greatest education I have ever received, it brought me face to face with the extent of my self-submission, and allowed me to verbally negotiate the root of our problem. Ironically, the day we became allies was the day our tension reached its apex; on a tempestuous Monday in November, cooped up together for far too many hours on end, I nearly called the whole thing off on the grounds of “irreconcilable differences.”

Outside, rain-water seeped into thirsty pavement until it could drink no more, collecting in the depressions of the sidewalk, making puddles like little urban tidal pools. Inside, swaddled in fleece blankets, sheltered by tall, cinderblock walls, I thanked the roof over my head for its protection. I loved the safety of this place, the invincibility it offered; here, I was freed from insecurity, assured a controlled environment: warmly lit, dry, heated to 70-degrees, and equipped with a loving companion to join me in weathering out the storm. The comfort of knowing that he would always be there, perched at his desk, head in hand, every time I looked up from my reading, was enough to keep me from wanting anything more.

I took turns memorizing every curve of his silhouette, the long-lobed ears, broad shoulders, nipped waist, numbing the noise of my internal monologue with little doses of adoration. And then it hit me, like a bus, or a wave, or a sack of potatoes; it was flushed cheeks, sweaty palms, knot in stomach, but not in that star-crossed lovers across the ballroom kind of way. What if one day he isn’t in that chair, five feet from me, but five hundred miles away making someone else’s dreams come true? What if one day, just like that, he turns to me and says, “I’m sorry, but I can’t give you what you need, not anymore.” I heard him speak those words unsaid again and again in my head, until I couldn’t differentiate my hallucinations from his actions.

When the swells of anxiety abated, at first, I felt dizzy, and then, compelled to my feet; a fly drawn to the warm glow of his desk lamp, I moved toward him and collapsed into an embrace. My arms hung like limp noodles on his shoulders, sentiments gushing out of me like vomit: “iloveyouknowiloveyouright!?” After silently studying for the past two hours, my  spur-of-the-moment declaration struck him as out of context, and he shrugged my words off as if they were nothing: “I know, sweetie, I’m working okay …” His dismissal meant the final nail in the coffin to me, an indication of indifference, a red flag hoisted above our heads printed with “change of heart.” Why did I let myself get close to someone, again? Love can be too thick to reciprocate, hadn’t I learned that by now? Suddenly, our home started to look a lot more like his room, and I didn’t feel safe anymore. I could feel the temperature rising to 75, 80, 85, the window sill flooding with wayward drops that spilled through a hole in the screen. I returned to the bed, and flipped back to my page, but the words may as well have been written in invisible ink, because I was wearing my doubts and insecurities like blinders. Just pay attention to me, I thought. One look from those glassy brown eyes would have been enough, one look to deny my fear of his impending distance.

I needed a distraction, something … systematic, a task, with clearly defined steps, to structure my thoughts around. After a quick survey of my surroundings, I set my sights on a lone sweet potato, lolling in the fruit bowl, forgotten just like me. A few cups of dry black beans, packed tightly into a transparent snack bag, competed for my notice. The perfect pairing. A romance meant for summer picnics, like the sweet potato and black bean enchiladas my housemates so ravenously gobbled down, that he had never tasted. Minutes later, with the short blade of a paring knife, I peeled long curls of skin away from orange flesh. For a moment, the spell of his laptop screen was broken, and he regained consciousness just long enough to investigate what I, conspicuously seated on the floor with a potato, was doing.


“I didn’t know we were cooking tonight,” he stated as a question. We.


“Oh, I just thought the potato should get used up.”


“Oh …well, since it’s been a busy day, I didn’t want to go through the ordeal of cooking and cleaning up, you know?”


“You don’t have to do anything, I’ve wanted to make this for awhile; I need a break from working anyway.”


“Alright, but I’d be just as happy going to the dining hall if you change your mind.”


An hour or so later, as I spooned the orange-black filling into two tortillas, he was still transfixed by the glow of his Mac and hadn’t so much as sneezed since our last bit of conversation. When the meal was assembled I took pride in my presentation, like a photo taken straight out of a restaurant menu. He eyed the food with cautiousness before piping up with an infantile “Can I …?”

He was walking on eggshells, approaching a sleeping baby who could be jostled by the slightest scuff of a shoe. If I was supposed to be a time bomb, well, then I’d show him an explosion. I spoke more sharply than I should have:


“Why would you even ask me that? Of course you can have some, I made a plate for you!”


“Well, I don’t know, you’ve been more sensitive lately.” Another red flag.


“Sensitive. You know that sounds straight out of a guidebook for sexist boyfriends,     right?”


This time, his response was more indignant than reluctant. “That’s exactly what I mean! I know it’s important to you, but of all the things to get worked up about, in a world of war, poverty, and terminal disease, you chose feminism?”


“And you chose Computer Science…? How noble.” I shoved his textbook off the bed, it hit the floor with a loud “fuck you.” His body tensed.


“You’re right, it’s important to me. But there’s no me in “us,” not anymore. My hobbies, my passions, my likes and dislikes, those don’t matter to you; your life is our life.”


I didn’t have class in ten minutes. I wasn’t rushing to make it to breakfast at 8:00 am sharp. But, I left anyway. With no umbrella to keep me dry, I walked bareheaded into the storm.

I couldn’t shake the feeling that there was something innately masochistic in my desire to shack up with a man, bolt the door, and never come out. And, while I couldn’t deny the wholeness I felt in his arms, I knew that self-actualization was supposed to mean finding fulfillment in oneself, not in another. Nonetheless, I allowed being in love to consume me, logging enough hours working on my relationship to warrant it status as my life’s passion. In reality, achieving the unattainable hadn’t brought the instant happiness I expected it to, and my obsession with maintaining perfection made a far less romantic narrative than true love and sunsets.

In The Second Shift, Arlie Hochschild coins the term “the economy of gratitude,” referring to the gifts given and received between spouses and how those gifts are valued. I indebted myself to him simply for loving me, offered my heart on a silver platter and, of him, asked only one thing: stay. He never asked or expected me to be domestic. It was easier on my conscience to play the victim, to convince myself that he had changed me when, in truth, being in a relationship with any man would have changed me. I needed to be invaluable to him. So, I played the “perfect girlfriend” to a tee, defaulting to the domestic types for character study, because those were the only ones I knew. At every avenue, society said that the “marrying type” baked homemade chocolate chip cookies, shared his interests, laughed at his jokes, and left him alone when he wanted to be. I chose to submit to him, but my “choice” was made in self-defense, as a way of evening the score and, in some backwards way, claiming the “upper hand” in our relationship. If I was perfect, he would never have good reason to abandon me.

Later that day, when I returned home, I admitted my fear. I’m afraid to lose you. But, that’s not what I said, not this time. Instead, “I have lost myself.” When we built an “us” from “he” and “I,” I withheld all the pieces of me. Now, here we were, four walls, a roof over our heads, every brick engraved with his name.

Hungry Young Feminist [Essay]

I started using ugly words on the off-chance that they would be affecting enough for people to take me seriously. From an aesthetic perspective, “anxiety,” “depression,” and “anorexia” aren’t so unpleasant sounding at all, but negative connotation robs each of its euphony. Harmless little letters, when fitted together in certain assemblages, will stop people cold in their tracks; “anorexia” makes noise, attracts attention, but it is an attention which may quickly turn to revulsion or fear. From the age of twelve, I have used the terms “self-conscious” and “over-analytical” to describe my preoccupation with how I am perceived by others, each loaded with an air of self-deprecation and admission of personal failure; but I will no longer allow the nuances of my condition to be marginalized by adolescent language. I have never been the self-conscious teenager that my family wanted me to be, the one whose normal “growing pains” would disappear with maturity; “just give it a few years,” they said, “your skin will clear up and no one will care how popular you are in high school.”

An eating disorder, like a new lover, will infatuate, consume and, then, alienate. It begins with a want of passion, anything — but food — to fill the lack of motivation, of inspiration, of an attainable goal. It takes up space [so that you don’t have to], crowding out every painful remembrance; abandonment, loneliness, failure. Your internal dialogue will go something like this: 1c. cheerios (100 calories) + ½ c. skim milk (45 calories) + 2 egg whites (30 calories) = 175 calories. At first, the freedom will empower; released from the bonds of depression and anxiety and delivered to a state of pure elation, your hands will, for once, hold the reins of your happiness. You will lose weight, receive attention, bask in the sensation of personal validation. I am remarkableI am worthy of love. I deserve to be praised. Theknees moment you realize that you have fallen too deeply, after the honeymoon phase has ended, evolved into a parasitic love affair of two partners so tightly intertwined that one cannot be distinguished from the other, it will be too late. Your personal identity will have been long forsaken to a newfound sense of self, one defined by your relationship to another – someone, something –
far greater than you.

There will be no one left to remind you of the person you once were. Not after: “Sorry I have to leave [my own surprise party] so soon, I have to get up early [to go to the gym]” and “Sorry, I know you offered to make dinner, but I already ate [so I wouldn’t have to eat anything that I hadn’t prepared myself].” By the time your self-loathing comes back around, you will have burned all of your bridges to spend time with Ana. She is the worst kind of lover: controlling, attention-seeking, deceptive, the kind you can’t bring home to Mom & Dad. And, if you do, they’ll blame you. For choosing her. For falling prey to her charms. For lacking the courage to pack up your things, walk out the door, and end it.

In contemporary culture, the “natural beauty” of woman has been affirmed by popular consensus; her image saturates every form of mass media: print, broadcast, electronic; she is the spokes-model of aesthetic pleasure, the muse of visual artists, musicians, poets, filmmakers. As a subject, the “beautiful woman” exists in the public domain and, therefore, the use and manipulation of her image cannot be regulated; she is a marketing tool, deconstructed and rebuilt to sell, juxtaposed with the tagline: “She is beautiful. Don’t you want to be beautiful too?” The abundant representation of female beauty may easily be misconstrued as empowerment for women, but by reducing them to an amalgamation of hair, skin, and bone, they become no more valuable than living mannequins.

Most women walk into a department store with the understanding that display mannequins and sales catalog models are paid (or made from plastic) to sell the clothes off of their backs. What women do not know, and the patriarchy and its institutions will never tell them, is that we are being sold, what Naomi Wolf terms, “the beauty myth,” the notion that physical appearance defines women’s worth. The contemporary backlash against feminism uses images of female beauty as a weapon against women’s advancement; by promoting the gaunt, youthful model as the arbiter of successful womanhood,” the media encourages women to embody a prototype which reinforces the most oppressive stereotypes used against them: frailty and innocence.

In The Body Politic, Abra Fortune Chernik, a recovering anorexic, reflects: “I had grown into a silent, hungry young woman. And society preferred me this way: hungry, fragile, crazy” (132). Little girls don’t dream of growing up to be strong, independent women anymore, they dream of remaining little girls forever. Flat chested. Narrow-Hipped. Small. The ideal woman is constructed by the male gaze for male pleasure. If women are smaller than men, they can be overpowered, raped, and physically or sexually abused. If women are smaller than men, they can be excluded from traditionally male fields which require “hard labor.” If women are smaller than men, gender difference, not social inequality, becomes the source of our oppression.

Dominant groups benefit from perpetuating myths of difference, from creating a polarization between themselves and those they oppress. Gender differences, whether they have basis in reality or are socially constructed, have been and will continue to be used by men to justify the privileges they have over women, and, as long as gender differences appear obvious, the majority of the population will continue to read social inequality as biological destiny. The re-emergence of gender essentialism in the 1980s was not coincidental; in the previous decade, women had “gained legal and reproductive rights, pursued higher education, entered the trades and professions,” and successfully blurred the line between the separate spheres. Women’s progress posed a threat to traditional values and male privilege, requiring the dissemination of a message which would remind them of gender role expectations. However, because the old feminine ideologies, “myths about motherhood, domesticity, chastity, and passivity,” could no longer control women as they once had, the media was forced to reinvent its rhetoric (The Beauty Myth, Naomi Wolf). The new “myth of difference” would emphasize the most stark, biologically incontestable difference between men and women: physical appearance.

Navigating Foreign Waters: The White Reader and Ethnic Literatures [Essay]

In a small city in Western Massachusetts, where reading for pleasure is a fashionable pursuit, there are three used book stores, nestled beside a cafe, a pizza parlour, and a bicycle repair shop, respectively. The people here don’t waste their time on anything but a “sure thing,” and I can’t blame them for their partiality, there are too many books and too few reading hours to save the best for last. While waiting for an uncomfortably dogmatic “DON’T WALK” signal to transform into the friendly silhouette of a pedestrian, I turn to the local beside me and, with the appearance of a true out-of-towner, ask her to recommend a bookseller in the downtown Historic District. She raves over Raven Used Books for its monthly features but, she warns, “They can be a little pricey …The books are cheaper on Federal Street, but you’d better know what you’re looking for.”

Federal St. Books is packed; the paperbacks and hardcovers rise up from floor to ceiling, tucked into built-in shelves, snugly situated on freestanding bookcases, on makeshift milk crate cubbies, tossed into cardboard boxes marked $1/$5/$10 each. When I cross the threshold, the dissonant jingle of bells announces my arrival and, at once, I feel overwhelmed by choice. whatamilookingforwhatami lookingforwhatamilookingfor. After a few paces down aisle one, I catch on to the store layout, organized alphabetically by author’s last name, but fail to note the sudden shift in my cognitive process. Thoughtful considerations, like preferred genre or desired emotional response, are entirely irrelevant to my search because, instead, I’m asking: Who do I know? Who do I trust?

About one quarter into my ABCs, I catch myself thinking out loud  “F-F-Faulkner, Fitzgerald, Frost.” With a skim of the dust jacket summary, I pick up Light in August for keeps; the novel’s poetic-sounding name and famous-sounding father lure me with ease. After patting myself on the back for my keen selectivity, I mosey over to the checkout counter with Faulkner in hand, leaving a few dozen unknowns behind to collect dust. I hadn’t intended to discriminate against Foster, Floyd, Flynn, etc., I just never saw them.

Human thoughts and actions are shaped by cognitive schema, which contain the attributes associated with a category membership; however, some signifiers are more central than others. For example, when separating littérature from common speech, “Faulkner” serves as a prototypical characteristic in and of itself, connoting merit, not by an analysis of the text’s technical qualities, but by association with something implicitly Literary. In his landmark essay “What is an Author?”[1], Michael Foucault introduced the concept of the “author function,” which suggests that an author’s name performs a “classificatory function,” permitting one to “group together a certain number of texts, define them, differentiate them from and contrast them to others” (549). In navigating an over-saturated literary market, modern consumers must narrow their scope by systematically eliminating large subsets of the book population. Often, this is most effectively done by drawing an arbitrary line between “must-reads” and books which aren’t even worth the paper they were printed on. During my excursion to Federal St. Books, I succumbed to information overload and relied on the author function to construct a false dichotomy between the essential (notable author) and the worthless (unknown writer). My primary criterion for purchase was not content, style, or even cost, but reputation; I bought Faulkner just like a pair of Keds or a carton of Quaker oats, out of brand loyalty.

One month later, just off the main drag in a chic college town, I amble into an overpriced bookstore and, despite my frugality, peruse its racks of new editions. A handpicked sampling of classic literature is lewdly displayed on every end cap, and I nearly cave to the power of their seduction, nearly throw down $11.95 for Ernest Hemingway by For Whom the Bell Tolls. As my gaze shifts from Ernest’s 36-point, boldfaced moniker to the “contemporary fiction” aisle marker above me, I realize that every “classic” was once contemporary; even Hemingway began his career as an unknown, aspiring writer just like me.

I never feel more safe, or more vulnerable, than when in a room full of unfamiliar faces. It makes my skin crawl to be so thoroughly scrutinized, to be stared at so hard, but there is comfort in knowing that no one can judge you for being a slut in high school or for coming from a single parent home. I swear I saw the hardcovers trembling in their dust-jackets as I drilled the line, standing like new soldiers at attention, their shoes freshly shined, pages crisp and uncreased. For once, my response could be entirely aesthetic, informed by unrestrained emotion, an uninhibited, unexplainable lust.

I instantly gravitate toward three thin-spined beauties, each with a title poetic yet simple, Love, A Mercy, Home; those abstract nouns always shut me up, the sheer weight of them, pregnant with metaphysical questions –Who am I? What do I live for? Where do I belong? In an unsolicited act of kinship, I cradle Home in the crook of my arm, remembering two summers ago, when Daddy sold our house, moved 1,000 miles west, and left me feeling utterly homeless. An electric flash interrupts my nostalgic trance, glowing yellow, at first, but then mellowing to a cool, steady blue. The colors simultaneously complement and contrast, spilling together to spell out Everything is Illuminated.

Like river stones nestled into damp sand, I overturn each novel gingerly, unsure of what may lie beneath, but hoping for a salamander. The back cover of Everything is loaded with the standard fare: quotes of praise, “Brilliant,” “not since … A Clockwork Orange,” etc; one hundred word synopsis, headshot. The author, wearing hip, round frame glasses and a white pocket tee, looks like a gawky, 21st century Franz Kafka: young, handsome, Jewish. The shelf flag beneath Home indicates its status as a new release; it probably won’t be available in paperback for at least six months. Something about hardcover editions, perhaps the added weight, makes them seem more heavy, more serious. The front cover, in line with the title, is simple, minimalist: mauve serif-script on a cream backdrop. The backside, where one would expect a deluge of promotional language, features a portrait of the author which expands to fill three-quarters of cover space.  Light pours from above, illuminating outward from the crown of her head, casting dark shadows on her ebony cheekbones, sharpening the curved lines of her profile: forehead, nose, upper lip, lower lip, chin. She carries herself more seriously than New Age Kafka who, ensconced in a La-Z-Boy, somehow manages to appear casually pensive. Later, when I put her back on the shelf with Love, and leave instead with the bespectacled fellow under my arm, I assure her that my decision isn’t personal but she knows, even if I don’t, that it is.

I massaged the fissures of her face with my thumb and forefinger, not noting the “otherness,” the darker gray, in her skin tone; yet, somehow, in that moment, Home lost my trust. Hers was a familiar face, a famous face with a famous name. And, the truth of it is, I snubbed her. She is Toni Morrison, the [black woman] author of Home, The Bluest Eye, Beloved; [the first black woman] winner of the Nobel Prize in 1993, a black woman. I knew the brand. Even read her once in high school. It was during an impromptu unit on African American Literature, my teacher’s last stitch effort to acknowledge Black History Month, which I read Beloved, followed by Uncle Tom’s Cabin, written by a white woman; and Angelou’s poem “I Know Why the Caged Bird Sings.” Mrs. Lincoln made the mistake of using slave narratives to teach a bunch of white kids about racial oppression; by the end of February, we were about done taking the blame for our white slaveholding ancestors, and the racist ideas which they held nearly 200 years ago. In a school district with a minority population of less than 2%, our racial dialogues often degraded into the polarization of “them” versus “us.” Why are they so obsessed with being black? Are they trying to make us feel guilty? We didn’t like the way it felt to be invisible or, when visible, demonized for our whiteness; we hated “black” literature for making us feel white.

In Playing in the Dark: Whiteness and the Literary Imagination Morrison asks:

What happens to the writerly imagination of a black author who is at some level always conscious of representing one’s own race to, or in spite of, a race of readers that understands itself to be “universal” or race-free? (Morrison xii)

Toni Morrison is the name of an author, but it is an author’s name which functions with nuance. As an individual, as the human person which “Toni Morrison” signifies, she is both African American and female. Unlike Faulkner, whose status as whitemale endows him with the privilege of being genderless and raceless, Morrison’s race and gender are considered inseparable from her identity and, therefore, inseparable from her work. Though the audience she intends to reach may be black, e.g., herself as an aspiring young writer, her children, her community, she must cater her style and voice to the preferences of white readers if she hopes to be commercially successful. Her critical success equally depends on a positive response from white readers, because the standards of “great” writing are set by white academics who look to white literature (Shakespeare, Dickens, Hawthorne, etc.) for example. The black woman writer finds herself in a double bind: she can write from her own experience (the black experience) and risk alienating herself from white readers or she can silence her racially/culturally specific voice at the expense of turning her back on her people and her identity.

When I returned to campus in the fall, called upon to play “student of English” for another year, I relinquished my consumer identity to the summer sun; I wouldn’t be choosing my own reading material for the next sixteen weeks. On the first day of classes, a season removed from my most recent encounter with Toni Morrison, her name appeared on my course syllabus: Home, in Literary & Cultural Theory. It seemed my destiny to romance this novel, as though she had written of our missed connection on Craigslist, and someone told her where to find me. The second time I met her face-to-face, she looked at me like I was a heartbreaker, or maybe I imagined she did, and I blushed inwardly with shame. I had been buying a prototype, a raceless and genderless prototype, which screamed: “notwhite, notmale, not for you!” As a white reader, my privileged status had coddled me; for years, I read stories of white protagonists and their white problems, never pausing to question the absence of non-white characters. After all, they had been there, just written into the margins, like Tituba of The Crucible or Jim of Huckleberry Finn. I discriminated against Morrison for moving her perspective from the periphery to the center, for speaking in her own voice, and not mine. Backed into a corner with my closed-mindedness toward ethnic literatures, I felt a sense of duty to appreciate Home whether it personally resonated with me or not.

In the second week of the semester, when our class gathered to discuss our reactions to Home, everyone consensually agreed that we had loved the book. Even I, who had been determined to feel alienated from the text, was seduced by Morrison’s evocative narrative. I congratulated myself for reading without bias, for acknowledging the right of all people to tell their own stories. However, as my classmates and I shared our versions of “this is what I liked about Home,” I couldn’t help but wonder if we had missed the point. Before our English major-esque discussions of narration, theme, and authorship began, our professor asked us each to choose a passage from Home to read aloud, offering no parameters to guide us aside from our own intuitions. I heard thirteen voices that day, and thirteen different speeches, all very different in tone and delivery. I sat there smirking to myself, bemused by how closely each passage resembled its speaker: the musician-in-residence described a bebop ensemble, the human dictionary opted for a breadth of vocabulary and word-play, the class clown, a humorous exchange of wits. We had all found ourselves in the text, navigated through foreign waters by latching on to every piece of familiar driftwood, and had created thirteen individually tailored reading experiences. For me, and the same appears true of my classmates, the most meaningful moments were those I had lived before: friendly banter with new acquaintances, emotional responses to powerful music, feelings of vulnerability and nostalgia. My ability to empathize with the characters allowed me to find meaning in their experiences, but in reading through “the personal,” rather than approaching the text objectively, had I really been exposed to a new racial/ethnic perspective?

As we made our way around the semicircle, I read over my passage again, and then once more, trying to get into character; after all, I would be speaking for Cee, and I wanted to do my favorite character justice. But, when I opened my mouth, my voice came out, not hers; something, deep inside, was telling me that these words were mine:

So it was just herself. In this world with these people she wanted to be the person who would never again need rescue. Not from Lenore through the lies of the Rat, not from Dr. Beau through the courage of Sarah and her brother. Sun-smacked or not, she wanted to be the one who rescued her own self. (Morrison 129)

Now, I’ll spare the long bit about my life story but, with a history of trusting the wrong people, and a present conviction to refuse all handouts, I really got what this girl was going through. As I read her role, I appropriated it for my own catharsis, play-acted as Cee for a couple hundred pages and made like my trauma had been validated. While the connection I felt between her and I seemed uncanny, the truth is, most young women are probably predisposed to seeing themselves in Ycidra Money. The bones of her narrative resemble the trials of many twenty-somethings in their first years of independent womanhood: find a man, “play house,” lose a man, go broke, take a handful of jobs in the service industry, look for more fulfilling work. She reminds us of jerk boyfriends, patronizing family members, and the journey of self-discovery that we had to make on our own. I liked her because, in many ways, she represented the “every woman,” offering a portrait of strength, rather than submission, that I admired and could model myself after. I stole her story and made it mine with a “Wow, I’ve been there too!” But, I hadn’t really been. Cee’s struggle was more loaded than the average young woman’s pursuit of autonomy, hers was the task of keeping faith even as racial oppression attempted to break her.

When unexpectedly prompted to choose a passage for recitation, I had little time to negotiate my decision, and fell into a systematic process, coding each page for impressionistic terms, the words that hit like bricks: “rescue,” “sun-smacked,” “self,” “courage.” And in that moment, it didn’t matter who had written Home, or why, because I liked it for the same reasons I would “like” any text, because I could find my story between its lines. The average reader evaluates texts in terms of their “likeability,” and asks others to recommend books based on that criterion: “How did you like Home?”/ “Oh, I just loved it!” Sold. But, what does it take to fall “in love” with a novel? Love requires a leap of the heart, a sinking of the stomach, a cheek flushed with anxiety; it is a sickness which is, in itself, a cure, a nausea to fill an insatiable emptiness. Evocative texts mimic this sensation, producing a simultaneous vulnerability and invulnerability, in words which hit so close to home that they hurt but, yet, leave a residual connectedness well worth the pain of remembrance. In a process akin to selective hearing, one unconsciously combs texts for familiar content, filtering out unwanted, irrelevant information while retaining that which engages with his or her personal experiences. An author who seeks popularity, then, must write of experiences accessible to all readers, and publish works which are universally likeable.

In applying the universality equals quality standard to ethnic literatures, we risk marginalizing the nuances of an underrepresented point of view. If I loved Cee for the insights she offered into my character, but erased the parts of her story that we didn’t share, I had failed to recognize the discrepancy in our privilege. Being of the same gender did not mean that we shared an essential “women’s experience,” because she, unlike me, wasn’t oppressed exclusively “as a woman,” but as “black,” “woman,” and as “black woman.” In an act of penance, I had given Toni Morrison license to offer me a perspective I could not conjure on my own but, as a reader thrust into the unknown, I relied on the familiar to lead me, showing favoritism to the aspects of the narrative that mirrored what I already knew.

Works Cited

Foucault, Michael. “What is an Author?” Criticism: Major Statements. Ed. Charles Kaplan and

William Anderson. New York: Bedford/St. Martin’s, 1999. 544-558.

Morrison, Toni. Home. New York: Alfred A. Knopf, 2012.

Morrison, Toni. “Preface.”Playing in the Dark: Whiteness and the Literary Imagination.

New York: Vintage Books, 1992.